Friday, November 27, 2015

Turnings of the Wheel

The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the first age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Appalachia. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Born below the cloud-capped peaks, the wind blew north, deep into the foothills. Down it flailed toward the Three Rivers, into the sprawling towns called the South Hills, and beat at two boys standing in the grass between their homes. Gusts tore at a tattered book, bound by rubber bands, that was being exchanged.

It will come as no surprise to the cognoscenti that the book being exchanged was The Eye of the World - book one in Robert Jordan's sprawling The Wheel of Time series. My friend and neighbor was the owner of the book, and he was insisting that I needed to read it.

I'd heard of The Wheel of Time, of course. I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club (it still exists!), and I'd seen the books featured from time to time. I'd been intrigued, but never remembered to look into the series when I was actually at a bookstore (this was long before Google).

I took that tattered paperback home, removed the rubber bands, and started to read. Within a day or two, I'd bought my own copy. I soon bought copies of the second and third books and before much longer, I owned and had read the first six paperbacks.

Earlier, I referred to The Wheel of Time as sprawling, and I meant it. The story spanned an entire world, and featured an ever-expanding cast of characters. It was sufficiently complex that I needed to go back and re-read the previous books every time another one came out. With each new book, this re-read became more unwieldy, and I eventually decided that it was time to let Mr. Jordan finish the series, then go back and read the whole thing in one long run.

Soon after I made that decision, Mr. Jordan became gravely ill. He soon passed away, but not before naming Brandon Sanderson to complete his epic tale. The series is now complete at 15 books, with a total of 11,916 pages (10,173 in hardcover), and the final book has been out long enough that I should have no trouble borrowing a copy from the library. The time has come.

I've borrowed the first 12 audiobooks (the ones I've previously read) from a friend, and plan to begin laying siege to the complete tale in early 2016. Will they still hold up after all these years? Will the series' end be satisfying enough to justify the wait? I'll soon find out, and I hope to report back here as I complete each book.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 Beer in Review

As the 2015 beerfest season draws to a close, it's time to look back.

Alongside Dr. Wife and another beer-loving friend (hereinafter known as J), I attended 14 beerfests this year. We braved dudebros, hipsters, and the looming spectre of indigestion to sample hundreds of (mostly) delicious brews.

Often (moreso as the year progressed), we found ourselves comparing whatever festival we were currently attending to other festivals that we'd previously attended. Eventually, I decided that we needed to determine which were the "shining stars" of Pittsburgh's beer festivals - the ones that really set the bar in terms of beerfest excellence.

To this end, I created a 2015 beerfest survey. Each of us ranked our top 5 festivals, and I tallied the results. A #1 vote was worth 5 points, a #2 vote was worth 4 points, and so on. I've compiled the votes, and these are the Best Beerfests of 2015 (Pittsburgh Edition):

#5: Beers of the Burgh Winter Warmer - 3 pts

Local beer and local food. It's a winning combination.

This festival filled a Southside warehouse with dozens of tables and parked several food trucks just outside. The beers were all local, brewed anywhere from 5 to 125 miles from the festival site. Trending toward the darker, maltier styles (my favorite direction), the draft list was just the thing to keep one warm in a large, drafty warehouse.

As for the food, Beers of the Burgh provided an excellent sampling of what one should exect from Pittsburgh food trucks. German street food, BBQ, and even brick oven pizza were available to fill revelers' bellies.

#4: Pittsburgh Brew N' Chew 2015 - 7 pts

The Pittsburgh Brew N' Chew brought together beer samples and food vendors in a convention center that used to be a furniture store (everything in Pittsburgh used to be something else). The beer was good, the food was good, and the layout and atmosphere were nearly perfect. Heck, this is the festival that introduced me to one of my absolute favorite Pittsburgh breweries.

The only downside is that they scheduled two sessions in one day, and I assume that there was fairly little time between them to clean up. As soon as the scheduled time ended, we were rather abruptly herded out the door.

#3: 2015 Zoo Brew Spring Hops & Oktoberfest - 9 pts

A beer festival at the zoo? You're kidding, right?

It's no joke, Zoo Brew is a twice-annual beer festival held at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Festivities, which include live music, a DJ, and as much food as you can eat, are held in the Village and Education Complex areas of the zoo, so there's no accidental mingling of revelers and animals.

One of the best parts of Zoo Brew is the fact that food is included in the ticket price. This is a very good idea, as the last thing you want at a beerfest is a lack of food.

#2: Hop Farm Hoptoberfest II - 11 pts

This festival did something that none of the others did.

There was delicious craft beer.

There was food from local restaurants.

The clever bit is that they were paired up - each beer had a small plate to enjoy alongside it. This little plot twist really made a difference - it took the experience from "food and drink samples" to "miniature meals."

#1: The 19th Annual Great European Beer Festival - 14 pts

Full disclosure: we attended the connoisseur's night, not the regular festival. The experience is quite different.

Standing in stark contrast to the noisy, crowded affair that is the "regular" festival, Connoisseur's night was a calm, reserved gathering of beer connoisseurs. We sampled and compared notes on many of Europe's finest beers, including several that had been pulled from the proprietor's beer cellar just for the occasion.

These fantastic beers were accompanied by food from the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium, served right to the tables. At Sharp Edge Connoisseur's Night, food comes to you!

It should also be noted that this event included the opportunity to sample Sam Adams Utopias. This is a brew that no beer enthusiast should ever pass up.

Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh Real Ale Festival 2015

Real Ale (n) - beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide. source

Flavorful and complex, Real Ale is a style that I've really grown to like over the years, so when I learned of a beerfest devoted to the style, I got excited. When I learned that the festival was being held in a soccer stadium and that there would be matches played, I became ecstatic.

The reason this festival is merely an Honorable Mention is that we made the mistake of buying tickets to two festivals on the same day. This is the sort of decision that only sounds good until you've done it.

By the time we arrived at the Real Ale Festival, all three of us were in a state of taste bud exhaustion (spending the morning sipping pumpkin beers will do that to you). Try as we might, we simply couldn't properly appreciate everything that we were sipping.

Lesson learned - only one festival per day. We're going to appreciate the hell out of the 2016 Real Ale Festival.